Petra is our oil, Jordanian tour guides are fond of saying as they introduce visitors to the ancient Arab Nabataean city that is Jordan's principal tourist attraction. But Jordan's oil is drying up. Its tourism industry is facing collapse as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict scares off visitors to a country bordering the West Bank. The Jordan Tourist Board is being forced into ever more creative thinking to keep the tourists coming, and last month flew over two dozen British Christians and Muslims to advertise a new series of tours around the country's main sites.
The trips, which start in the autumn, are being offered by a division of Saga holidays, which hopes the visitors will take the word back to their communities that Jordan is safe, and has enough holy sites to make it a destination for the spiritual tourist in its own right.
Traditionally, such holidays have concentrated on Israel, taking in Jordan only as a side trip, but with Jerusalem and Bethlehem firmly off-limits the Jordan Tourist Board and Saga hope to make it a stand-alone destination. They hope they have discovered a unique selling point in the idea of multi-faith pilgrimages that focus on the Christian and Islamic significance of the holy sites on the itinerary. They profess to have a higher purpose than mere holidays, aiming to promote understanding between Christians and Muslims and to counter heightened tensions after 11 September and renewed violence in Israel and the occupied territories.
The pilgrimages will be led jointly by Christian and Muslim chaplains – each reading from the Bible will be accompanied by an excerpt from the Koran – and organisers hope that each group will work out for themselves how to reconcile potential cultural conflicts. To be really effective, and brave, a Jewish leader could have been included, but in the current climate it appears trying to promote harmony among Muslims, Jews and Christians within sight of some of the worst violence between Palestinians and Israelis was seen as a step too far.
Pilgrimages begin at the recently excavated site of Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan where John the Baptist is thought to have baptised Jesus and where Elijah was said to have ascended into heaven. The Baptism Archaeological Park on the east bank of the river Jordan guides visitors around the baptising pools and John the Baptist's cave, but the remains of ancient history have to compete for the tourists' attention with very visible signs of current events. The park is in a military zone, Israeli soldiers can be seen on the far side of the river, and armed Jordanian soldiers in camouflage patrol around the excavations.
The other main pilgrimage site is Mount Nebo, from where Moses – like Elijah and Jesus, a crucial figure in the Koran and the Bible – first saw the Promised Land, and where he died and was buried. There is a 6th-century Franciscan chapel for pilgrims to reflect on the past, along with a lookout sign serving as a reminder of what has become of the Promised Land; it points the way to Hebron, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Ramallah and Nablus. Specifically Islamic elements on the pilgrimage are few, taking in the King Abdullah Mosque and Islamic Museum in Jordan's capital Amman, as well as the tomb of Abu Ubeida Amer bin Al-Jarrah, one of Mohammed's Faithful Companions.
Tourism accounts for 10 per cent of Jordan's GDP, employs 10 per cent of its workforce, and has annually puts $800m into the economy. As tourists from the United States and Europe have all but disappeared since Jordanian tourism's zenith in 2000, the industry has been laying staff off, five-star hotels are empty, and it is desperate to lure back visitors. "People keep asking me why the country is being punished when it is at peace with everyone," says Marwan Khoury, managing director of the JTB. "We have had two years of difficulties because of misconceptions arising from the fact that we are so near to the area of conflict and the events of 11 September."
His organisation is enthusiastically backing the pilgrimages because Jordan does not see itself as a mass tourism destination, preferring to target tourists interested in an educational holiday, whether it is spiritual, environmental or archaeological. Multi-faith holidays suit that strategy and fit in with Jordan's self-image as an oasis of peace in a warring region. However, the pilgrimages would be foolish to ignore the reasons most people, secular or religious, visit Jordan. They very deliberately include a stay on the shore of the Dead Sea, as well as a day at Petra, the incomparable remains of the capital of the Nabataean Kingdom that ruled most of Arabia more than 2,000 years ago.
The Lonely Planet guide to Jordan published two years ago warns that Petra has turned into "bedlam" as 1,000 tourists a day battle to view the immense façades carved from mountain walls. But on the day the Saga group visited there were just 100 people there, making it possible to appreciate fully the walk through a narrow gorge that opens without warning on to the Treasury building guarding the entrance to the city. Anyone visiting Jordan this year will have Petra – and the Dead Sea – more or less to themselves, which for all the noble aspirations of multi-faith tourism, remains the best reason to go.
The Foreign Office advises that most visits to Jordan are trouble-free but warns that unpredictable events can lead to a rapid increase in tension. It strongly advises against travel to the West Bank, and warns visitors to exercise caution and take local advice if visiting Jerusalem